I have just finished reading Meira Chand's "A Different Sky". A tale of Singapore in the tumultuous years prior to Independence, the story starts in the mid 1920s, takes us through the Japanese Occupation to the early years of self-government. Told through the stories of three main protagonists - a Chinese girl of good family, a Eurasian boy and a young Indian businessman - we read how each person is shaped by the events they live through even as each, in their way contributes to the Singapore story.
In the same way, the book tells the story not only of Singapore during these critical years, but of the larger events in the world beyond. Indeed, what I like best about this book was the way it portrayed how the nationalistic movement of the pre-Colonial period, and the growing threat of communism, influenced politics and society here in Singapore.
Of the three protagonists, I found Raj, the pragmatic but warm hearted Indian capitalist, rather endearing. His self-serving actions (including collaborating with the Japanese during the war) contrast with his many acts of kindness to those around him. The other two were less interesting and I felt that they were created to fit a certain "mould" - Howard, the Eurasian civil servant, who grew up with a chip on his shoulder; Mei Lan, the war heroine who became a lawyer fighting and protecting abused women. But a number of the minor characters, I felt, played an important role in livening up the tale. Rose, Howard's mother, a widow making a living for herself and two young children. Mei Lan's second grandmother, tyranising her slave girls, smoking her opium and dabbing on her Schiaparelli perfume. Raj's brother-in-law Krishna, freedom fighter and rabble rouser. Their stories, too, formed part of the rich tapestry of "A Different Sky".
But overall, the story was indeed that of Pre-Independence Singapore. A tale of life under the British, and then under the Japanese. A tale of political awakening, of a nation beginning to arise. A tale of individuals and families passing through tragedy and terror, to live again and love again.
In the broad sweep of history, 50 years ago is not a long time at all. Yet for many of us, it is indeed a totally different era - a time and place totally outside our experience of life in Singapore today. This book gives us an insight into these days gone by, and leave us the wiser for it.